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“So, what do you do?”

When you’re unemployed and want to work, it’s awkward to start off a conversation as you’re introduced to someone new with this question asked of you. Yet, invariably, it seems to be one of the first things they ask you after walking over and saying hello. You’re hoping to make a good impression and the last thing you want to do is share something which exposes you to being viewed in a negative way. The result, you feel bad; they’ve zeroed in immediately on the one thing you’d rather not talk about right off the top.

People generally ask this question in the first minute of meeting someone and there are a few reasons we do. First and foremost, it’s a routine habit for many and it’s easy. When we first meet, we have no history spent together, no frame of reference to ground a conversation in, we’re unaware of any shared interests or views of the world. We’re looking for context; something we can ask that isn’t too personal, is acceptable to ask at a first meeting and we’d rather listen in those first two minutes than do much of the talking ourselves. Getting, rather than giving information empowers the person who asks first.

The empowerment comes having gained the advantage of having more time before they volunteer anything about themselves. Knowing what it is you do work-wise, they can respond to the same question, (for you’re likely to ask exactly the same question in reply) and so what they’ve really done is script the first exchange of information in a predictable way that makes the awkwardness of meeting less so. Ironic isn’t it? They’ve likely got a job and to eliminate their own awkwardness, they ask the very thing that makes it awkward for you!

Now on the other hand, if you’re quick, you can ask the person you’re meeting what it is they do, and when they’ve told you, you can pre-empt their asking you what you do by saying, “Wow, that’s quite interesting, tell me more.” As people often enjoy talking about themselves, you can forestall their asking of you by showing great interest in them and then voluntarily sharing something about yourself, such as a personal trait, general interest, passion or hobby.

But let me point out something to you, or remind you of just in case you’ve forgotten. There is so much more that defines you in addition to your employment status – what you do.

Your identity; how you see yourself and how you are seen by others is not solely comprised of your job/career. You may have other roles; mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, cousin, grandmother, grandfather. You may be a weekend gardener, a woodworker, have a love of food and cooking, a flair for interior design, a book junkie, a church-goer or workout at the gym daily. You could be a caregiver, a fundraiser for a local charity, someone who works to improve the environment or the supporter of a healthcare cause. Maybe you’re a runner, a volunteer in your community, a good friend and trusted holder of secrets. You could be a singer in the choir, a leader in a youth organization, a helper on school outings, the watchful eyes of your neighbourhood, a patron of your local library, a supporter of a political party, and the list is endless.

The point is, there’s so much more to you – to all of us – than solely the job we get paid to do. Allowing others to define us by only one factor – our employment – is to sell ourselves short. But don’t blame others for seeing us this way. It’s our job – yours and mine – to first see the many roles we have. We have to see value in ourselves before we can expect others to see the same value in us. If we fail to share some of the many other facets that make up our identity, we can’t expect people to see us any other way but that which we share. So in other words, answer the question, “So what do you do?” by saying, “I’m not working at the moment”, and you’ve provided the person asking with only one piece of information for them to put you in some context they can understand. As unemployed is not generally a favourable situation, it’s them that feels awkward; and it’s their own awkwardness at how to proceed that often has them excuse themselves and move on.

And here, all the while, you thought it was only you who felt the situation awkward. Nope. Not true.

So you’ve got a choice; you always have a choice. You could state your unemployed and then go on to share something you’re passionate about or involved in that gives them the opportunity to respond favourably to whatever it is you share. Or you could just share what that passion or involvement is like this exchange:

“So what do you do?”

“At the moment I’m really concerned with the environment and so I’m involved with some community initiatives making our local area more sustainable for the future.”  No hint of unemployment, no shame or embarrassment and you’ve given the person asking something positive to respond to. Dignity preserved.

In advance of meeting others, you could also consider what YOU’LL ask them other than their own employment status. They too might be loathing the same question!

 

Getting Past, “So What Do You Do?”


Within the first few minutes of meeting someone for the first time, you’re likely to be asked some version of the question about what it is you do. When you’ve got a job or career, it’s a comfortable question to answer, especially if you enjoy your job. However, when you’re out of work and can’t find a job, that question can be irritating because for many, it’s hard to answer and not feel some embarrassment or even shame. A solid answer and we feel good, a vague answer or stating we’re unemployed and we feel bad. Why? Because either way, we can feel that we’re setting ourselves up to be judged.

The work we do is of course only one aspect of who we are as a person, but it’s the one thing that keeps coming up early in those introductions when first impressions count so much. I suppose it’s asking about something that’s viewed as a social norm and not too invasive. However, if you’ve ever told someone you’re between jobs or out of work and had them quickly walk away and begin a conversation elsewhere, you know that feeling and isn’t a good one. You just know that you’ve been judged and deemed in some way not up to par.

Like I said though, our occupation is only one part of who we are as people. Some of our other pieces include the state of our finances, social life, housing, spiritual, emotional, physical or mental health. There’s our use of personal time, beliefs, personal philosophies, values, leadership styles, the way we interact with the natural world, places we’ve been, accomplishments, hobbies, intelligence IQ, However just imagine your reaction if someone introduced themselves and said, “Hi, I’m Dave. So generally speaking, how healthy is your investment portfolio?”

The curious thing is that people with what society might regard as a prestigious job – say a Family Law Lawyer, Chief Executive Officer, Coroner or even a Teacher, aren’t automatically better people than the rest of us. They have problem marriages, dysfunctional families, stresses, mental health issues and challenges just like you and me. But still we start those conversations with asking about what someone does for a living.

If you listen to people talk about themselves, you can clearly hear them share what they want you to know. If they keep bringing up their job and the work they do, they might be doing so because this is an area they feel comfortable and proud talking about. They believe that this aspect of their life is one you’ll judge them favourably by and walk away with a positive impression of them.

Now when you’re not working but would like to be, talking about your unemployment can have the reverse effect. This isn’t an area where you feel on solid ground in a conversation and your fear of being judged negatively and leaving a poor impression is heightened. We constantly hear how making good first impressions is important, and we know this ice-breaker topic is likely to come up, so consequently some people will avoid social situations completely to limit the number of bad first impressions they’ll make. This ‘feeling bad’ about not having an answer to share with confidence and pride just reinforces our feelings of not fitting in until we’ve found work once again.

There’s some irony however in that the percentage of adults who have at some time in their lives been out of work is quite high. Being laid off from your job is something typically beyond your own control. When a company moves or shrinks its workforce, it’s well beyond your ability to keep your job. Still, when at that social gathering, it would seem weird to say, “Hi, I’m Joan and I was let go 6 month’s ago for reasons beyond my control and I’m now unemployed.”

This is however, part of a great answer if you’re introducing yourself at a job fair for unemployed people looking for work. Imagine what a relief it would be to be in a room surrounded by others out of work, where everyone is in the same predicament. Asking, “What do you do for a living?” would be replaced with, “So what kind of work are you after?” The feeling is more positive – you’re after something – being proactive.

Wait a second…maybe we’re on to something here…

Just imagine you meet someone for the first time and they ask you, “So what do you do for a living?”, and you said, “At the moment I’m pursuing work as a _____. It’s a great fit for me personally and I’ve got the education and experience. If you have any connections or leads I’d appreciate being hearing about them.”

What do you think? Instead of feeling embarrassed or dreading the question because of a weak response, you’ve taken an assertive position. You’ve told them what you’re after and you’ve shifted their thoughts to whom they might know, how they might help you, and all it takes is one person to give you a name that could lead to that next interview that results in a job.

Why, you might even give them your contact information, or ask for theirs and follow-up in a couple of days with a call or an email. Try it once and it’s new and awkward. Twice and it’s easier; often and you’re an assertive networker.

 

Community Involvement And Networking


One piece of advice almost always given to people who are looking for work is to get out there and network. While I entirely agree with this, quite often those that are being given this advice haven’t got much of an idea on how or where to actually do it.

While there are formal gatherings you can look into and attend in your community such as Chamber of Commerce sponsored meetings, they can be intimidating to be one of the few people who isn’t a business leader in attendance, and your opportunity to mix and mingle is restricted to time set aside for doing so. Many a person has attended these meetings with the intent of talking to others but in the end, walked out having said almost nothing; too much pressure apparently to force a conversation.

I have a suggestion for you which you might find much more appealing and a lot less intimidating. Consider getting involved in some group of people where you feel a sense of connection in the purpose for the gathering. Allow me to use myself as an example.

Over the years I’ve acted in community theatre productions primarily where I live in Lindsay Ontario and in the neighbouring city of Peterborough. As I write this blog today, I do so in the early hours of opening night for a production of, ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’. This production has brought together children, teenagers and adults from the Peterborough and surrounding area, some 50 people when you add up the actors on stage and the full production crew. Throw in the parents of the children, brothers and sisters of the cast, and you’re almost around 100 people!

So here are a large gathering of people who come together with a unified love of performing and / or being involved in a theatrical performance. Over the 2 or 3 months we’ve met and rehearsed, there’s been a lot of time for conversations, many of which involved inquiries about what occupation a person has. I’ve found people who teach, three restaurant owners, a farming family that raise and train horses, a Home Inspector, aspiring actors of course and College Instructors to name a few.

The conversations are natural, not forced, and yes there are a few people in the cast who are out of work and looking for jobs. As for the teens, while they are in school, for every one that has an idea of what they want to do for a living, there are many more that are unsure and still trying to figure things out. Just yesterday at our last rehearsal, one of them asked me backstage what I did in my job, and when I said I was an Employment Counsellor, they replied, “What’s that?” This is how they get exposed to new career possibilities, by bumping unexpectedly into people who do something they’ve not heard of and asking questions.

Now joining a community theatre group isn’t what I’d necessarily suggest you do. But do you get the point I’m making about joining a group of people in your own community that share a collective interest? Be it knitting, playing music, improving parks and playgrounds, joining a Board of Directors in a local organization, helping out a local sports team, or signing yourself up to curl for the winter months, get out and meet people.

The positive thing about doing any of the above is that you meet people naturally, and you get to know them, socialize with them, and you don’t have the pressure of feeling you have to pin them down in a single 10 minute meeting and plead for a job or ask them to introduce you to someone who does. No, in the case of my community theatre experience, I’ve had a few months to mingle and speak with any and all I wished to whether in a group or one to one. What I’ve found is that good people get involved in community activities. They are intrinsically good by nature, they are helpful, and because we are unified (in this case) by our love of entertaining those who come to see a show, we’re generally in good moods and having fun. Now wouldn’t you like to talk to people who are good by nature, helpful and enjoy being around you if you were looking for a new job?

Who knows where you’re next job lead might come from? You might find that the guy who you act beside has an opening in his business and in getting to know you, he takes a liking to you. Or maybe the backstage crew goes home and casually mentions to their family that you’re out of work and looking for a job and it’s someone who overhears that comment that says, “Really? What’s she looking for?”

Networking is really just connecting with people, having conversations beyond the initially reason for meeting. So yes, in this case we are brought together by our love of staging a production, but when we talk of things outside the theatre, we’re networking with each other.

Consider therefore looking into community groups, calls for volunteers, connecting with people who share whatever it is you find of interest. You’ll meet others who will take an interest in you and opportunity may come when you least expect it, while at the same time you have fun yourself, and that’s good for your mental health!

 

Job Interview First Impressions


In my experience as an Employment Counsellor, I’ve come to note that those who make good, positive first impressions don’t mind for a minute accepting that other people form opinions of them spanning the first 30 seconds to a minute when they meet. Equally, those who tend to make poor first impressions feel that its entirely unfair that others judge them in such a short time. Well, honestly, whether you like or dislike it when others form first impressions in such short timelines, the reality is, that’s…well…reality.

It’s not just employers and interviewers that form these quick first impressions, and quite frankly, as a species, humans have done it for centuries. It’s survival 101 you know; this innate ability we have to quickly take in whatever sensory information that’s available to us and then in mere seconds, assimilate all that data and form an immediate impression that then guides if or how we interact with others.

Walking on a sidewalk we look ahead and see a stranger approaching us. Based on extremely limited information, we might continue on with a smile and nod as we pass, or we might see a swagger in their walk, a scowl on their face, see their eyes set on us and with all this we choose to duck into a store or cross the street. We judged the situation to be uncomfortable at best, dangerous at worse, and best to be safe and not sorry. Were our actions justified?

Similarly in a subway if every time we look up we notice a person looking at us with a smile and fleeting eyes that look away and we see them bite their lips, we might interpret this as a shy, embarrassed, “you caught me looking at you, and I’d like to meet you but I’m too shy to start a conversation” look. Maybe we’re right and maybe we’re not; maybe we introduce ourselves on the off-chance they are interested in us, or maybe we bury our heads in a book because we might be wrong.

It’s in these everyday interactions with others that we form impressions of others while they of course are doing the same thing with respect to us. The data we take in might include someone’s choice of clothing, it’s cleanliness, their grooming, body odour or fragrance/cologne, their height, weight, shape, health of their teeth, colour of their eyes, posture etc. All in mere seconds mind you – our brains process all this data and we form opinions from which we judge them to be safe to approach, intimidating and to be avoided, etc.

In a job interview situation, take heart! For starters, always remember that this first meeting you’re about to have with some company representative is one you know is going to happen. In fact, you’ve got the time and place as two knowns, so it’s not going to catch you off guard. If you ask the right questions when offered the interview, you also know how many will be interviewing you, their names and their titles. This information can be of comfort, especially if you use social media to look them up and get a visual on their appearance and read their bios in advance of meeting them face-to-face.

You have the further advantage of choosing your outfit for this first encounter, deciding which clothing will be likely to make the best impression on them; be it formal, business casual, etc. The things in your control continue as you can make sure your hair is clean and brushed, your deodorant working, your teeth brushed and a swig of mouthwash will ensure any lingering offensive smells are absent. You can shine your shoes, choose your accessories with care as well.

In addition, when you arrive is in your control. Sure you might run into unexpected delays – that’s why their called unexpected! – but, you can almost guarantee your arrival time will be appreciated by leaving early and planning your route. A dry run on another day will likely give you a good measure of the time you’ll need.

Whether you bow, shake hands or not, smile or not, maintain eye contact or not when actually meeting during the first 2 seconds; again in your control. Even the way you sit or pace back and forth in reception, your posture as you wait and then your body language as you get up to introduce yourself to the interviewer(s); all this within your control and therefore up to you to choose how you wish to act.

These first few seconds are critical as those you meet form first impressions of you just as you are of them. The thing is though that you might be feeling so much pressure on yourself to do well and get a job offer that in the moment you aren’t thinking a great deal about them – being so worried about yourself and what you’re communicating.

Positive or negative, that first impression is the initial point from which all further interaction either reinforces or works to change one’s first impression. The more you put some effort into ensuring the first two minutes shows you as you’d like, the more you can feel confident done your best to get off on a good note. A poor start and you’ll feel the pressure to alter their view of you.

First impressions; vitally important and worth paying attention to. Oh and on the subway? Just go up and introduce yourself!

Why We Ask, “What Do You Do?”


One of the most common questions we get asked when we meet someone new is, “So, what do you do?” The second, ‘do’ referring of course to your line of work, your job or career. Not as popular a question in other parts of the world perhaps, but here in North America, second only to questions about the weather.

The obvious reason for the question is a desire to know what it is you do. “Oh you’re in IT; interesting.” This isn’t the real reason behind the question.

People I have found who ask the question have two distinct reasons for doing so. The first has to do with enabling conversation. When you meet someone, you don’t yet have much to talk about; you have no shared experiences to sustain a conversation. Asking someone what their job is provides a point from which subsequent questions evolve. If the person says, “I’m a Teacher”, we access our memory first for what a Teacher is, and second for our own experiences with teachers. We then ask about the grade level, school, years of experience, why they like it, challenges and what’s it like to be at the front of the room etc.

If the job is unusual, or we’ve never met someone with that job title, we have no memory files to access, so we shift to questions intended to obtain information. “What exactly is that?”, “That’s a new one for me, what exactly is it you do?” or “How did you get started?”

The second reason some people ask the question, “What do you do?” has more to do with evaluating the person themselves; their importance by association with the job or career, and likewise their social standing. Hence when someone says in reply to the question, “I’m a Supreme Court Judge actually”, we react differently versus, “I’m a Telemarketer”. Did you instinctively rank one of the two professions above the other? What were your criteria in doing so if you did? Was it the income level, the prestige of the job, your own experience with Telemarketers or Judges? Maybe how they are portrayed on television?

What however, about the person who has no job or career? Those who are unemployed, between jobs, laid-off, receiving social assistance, disability or getting employment insurance benefits? Knowing that we judge and are judged by the answer we both hear from others and give ourselves, this opening to a potential conversation with someone new can bring on stress and a feeling of awkwardness.

What we fear is the exchange that goes:

“So what do you do?” (I’m interested to know)

“I’m unemployed.” (The truth)

“Oh…” (Not interested. Bottom ranked. I have to get away.)

Now before we unceremoniously blast the person who now wants to leave and pronounced judgement on the unemployed person; we all do this. Even if we are the empathetic person who sticks around, asks more questions of the person as to their skills, past jobs, prospects etc., we still evaluate people in part by their attachment to some kind of employment. So we may peg all Entrepreneurs as go-getters and risk-takers. All Politicians as corrupt, all Philosophers as great thinkers, all Artists as creative etc. In truth however, Artists do get stuck for ideas, Philosophers may over think, some Politicians serve their communities well and some Entrepreneurs play it safe and are actually risk-adverse.

For the unemployed person, the problem really comes down to finding a way to answer the question truthfully but still maintain some dignity in the answer. So we hear, “I’m a Stone Mason by trade”, or “I’m exploring my options at the moment.” This last one indicates you’ve got options to explore, so anyone using this one should be prepared for the likely next question which asks what those options are.

Here’s some irony for you. Many unemployed people avoid conversations – especially with people they are meeting for the first time for the very reason that they may be asked what it is they do. However, networking and talking to people is one of the very best ways to find out about new opportunities, job leads and maybe be put in touch with someone who can help them find work. Still, it’s a sense of pride that keeps some from sharing their unemployment. They tell themselves they’ll circulate more and be more sociable once they have work and by association are better judged by those they meet.

Consider however that this is a tougher economy we are in at the moment. Many people have been, or know someone close to them who is out of work. It is because of this that there is more empathy for people who are either out of work altogether or under-employed.

Imagine if you will, being asked, “What do you do?” and instead of apologetically saying, “I’m out of work at the moment”, you said…

“I’m so glad you asked. I’m between jobs at the moment but I’m optimistic, always on the lookout for any tips, job leads, suggestions and opportunities in the ___________ industry. It’s mentally tough, but I’m committed to keeping a positive attitude; the one thing no one can ever take from me. Would you be interested in hearing of my skills and experience?”

You’ll impress and surprise many people with your assertiveness and attitude. You will in short, become memorable.

“Judging” Others Isn’t Bad, It’s Essential


Do you find it troubling or disturbing if I tell you that I’m positive you go about your daily life judging other people? If you do, what is it about the word, ‘judging’ that puts you on the defensive? Judging others is not only something you do all the time, its a critical part of your self-defence system that has got you this far in life.

Okay so you’re walking in a strange neighbourhood – wait – it’s not strange to the people who live there and frequent it all the time. No, the neighbourhood is just unfamiliar to you, and yet you chose to think of it as strange instead of new or unfamiliar. Moving on though, you see this large, imposing figure come out of nowhere and who is now walking toward you with their head held high, shoulders square, and your senses tell you to be on your guard. You furtively look for an open store to dash into until they pass, or cross the street to avoid meeting them altogether. Your survival instincts kicked in based on your past experiences; real and vicariously lived through television, movies and books.

Yes we make judgements about people based on how they dress, walk, act, their tattoo’s or body piercings, their vocabulary and where they live. If we meet them and strike up a conversation, we ask what they do for a living, where they went to school, who’s in their social circle, what they’ve read lately, what they do in their spare time, and we form opinions and judge them based on every little piece of information that we gather. And those people are instinctively doing the same thing about us.

Employers are no different. When they get our cover letters or resumes, they start assessing whether or not we might be a good fit to work for and with them. Spelling and grammatical errors might cause them to judge us as poorly educated, having little regard for proofreading and attention to details, illiterate or worse. Written work that is error free and grammatically correct may cause them to judge us as well-educated, professional, desirable and having a strong attention to detail.

Now follow this pattern to a first meeting, and in seconds, you’ll find yourself looked up and down, and an initial first impression is made by them about you. Presumably you chose your clothing when dressing, so that says something about you and how you see yourself. Did you dress conventionally to fit in with those who work there currently or did you decide to express your individuality and go with the reindeer socks for the big interview?

Yes judging others is something we all do. Think back on some of the more notable people in your past. A favourite teacher, a kind neighbour, your favourite grandparent or Aunt. Think now of some of those whom you didn’t really get on with too; the bully in the playground, the stern teacher, an abusive partner, a boss who treated you unfairly. Got some images for the good and bad folks of the past or possibly even the present? Good.

As you now go about your daily life, you’re running into people all the time. There’s the cashier at the grocery store, the bank teller, the person who makes your coffee, the person your best friend introduces you to etc. And of course there are job interviewers, workshop facilitator’s, mental health counsellors and even Employment Counsellors. All of these people are no different. Meet any of them for the first time and you’ll immediately form some reaction.

So what’s going on in those first 1 – 10 seconds when you meet? Your brain takes in all the visual and auditory information it can gather and immediately starts comparing what you are now experiencing with all the data it’s collected and stored about similar people you may have encountered in the past. If the person in front of you fits with the good experiences you’ve had, your impression is a positive one. If however the data you are feeding to your brain via your senses of sight, sound, smell and possibly touch match up with people from your past with whom you’ve had bad experiences, you’ll have a negative reaction.

This explains why you and your best friend have a different impression of someone you both just met for the first time. And it also is why some organizations have panel interviews; to get two or more people’s assessment of you the job applicant and see if they can agree on who would be the best fit.

After that first impression, there may be many more interactions. These subsequent interactions either confirm our initial first impressions, or they provide additional data to our brains that cause us to re-think and re-evaluate our initial thoughts, and our judgement of others may shift slightly or completely. However, in the case of a job interview, we may only get a single shot at the job. Those first 1 – 10 seconds are vital then to making a positive impression. The next 11 seconds – 1 hour will either confirm for the interviewer that they had you sized up properly right at the start, or may change their opinion of you based on your answers and your non-verbal communication.

So you do it, they do it, we all do it; we judge; and it’s a good thing. You’re judging me right now based on what you’ve read. I’m hoping I’ve made a good impression!